ESPN’s “LANCE” Wraps With a Lack of Regrets—Despite the Relationships Lost

The latest in Lance Armstrong's full-disclosure interviews has finished airing on ESPN... is it time to close the chapter?

By Eben Weiss |

Seven years after his confession, it’s pretty easy to reconcile Lance Armstrong’s doping—if you go in with justifications, that is. Everyone was doing it, right? Gotta level the playing field.

It’s much harder to reconcile the manner in which Armstrong destroyed lives and livelihoods in order to keep his doping under wraps—and that’s why so many cycling fans will never forgive him. Lance Armstrong’s worst transgression wasn’t using drugs to beat his rivals; it was branding former soigneur Emma O’Reilly a “whore” for telling a journalist that he used drugs to beat his rivals.

He refers to himself as “an idiot in full attack mode”

O’Reilly, Greg LeMond, Frankie and Betsy Andreu, Filippo Simeone—in one way or another, each of them threatened to undermine the Armstrong myth simply by being honest. In return, Armstrong used his position as the most powerful person in professional cycling to not just discredit them but to lay waste to their reputations and careers.

Drug use in cycling was devastating, to be sure; but even more devastating was the war that raged around it and the collateral damage it inflicted. At the heart of this war was Armstrong. Nobody reaped as much fame and fortune from the EPO generation as he did, and nobody fought so ruthlessly to preserve those gains. And all the while, he maintained a saintlike status because of his charity work with LIVESTRONG. He was Pablo Escobar, building schools and playing fields for his people while annihilating his enemies.

Part II of ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary, “LANCE,” picks up with Armstrong fresh off his seemingly miraculous 1999 Tour de France win, bantering with Letterman and mocking the doping aspersions already being cast upon him by the press. At a shocking speed, he becomes a vessel for the adulation of cycling fans, the hopes of people living with cancer, and the expectations of corporate sponsors. Just as quickly, lying begets lying; it’s immediately clear to Armstrong that he “can never be honest with this.” If the vessel cracks, then everything just goes away.

He was Pablo Escobar, building schools and playing fields for his people while annihilating his enemies.

As you watch “LANCE,” you remember, you remember what it means to win seven consecutive Tours de France. This was year after year of charging through the world’s most grueling sporting event with a machete; of dodging crashes and fending off accusations; of somehow doing blood bags and injections while being one of the most famous athletes on the planet; of bending the Tour, the UCI, and public perception to his will. By the time he emerges from the other end of it all, he’s running shirtless with Matthew McConaughey and dating a succession of famous women. There’s speculation that he’ll run for governor of Texas, and there’s a building at Nike headquarters with his name on it.

Moreover, while he’s winning all those bike races, Armstrong is becoming the world’s first cancer superstar, first by overcoming the disease, and then by destigmatizing it. Nike sells 80 million of those little yellow rubber bracelets. Armstrong speaks candidly about his children, conceived in vitro with sperm banked prior to his treatment. Lindsay Nohr Beck, founder of Fertile Hope, says the reality of fighting cancer is “irrefutably better” in a post-Armstrong world, crediting his candor about his children for her decision to seek the fertility treatment that led to the birth of her own. Former LiveStrong CEO Doug Ullman says that Armstrong was never paid by the organization and scrupulously bypassed any opportunities for personal income. Journalist Bonnie Ford says Armstrong’s visits to dying children convinced her that, for all his ruthlessness in and out of competition, he approached his cancer work without guile.

As for Armstrong himself, he states that he never used LIVESTRONG to deflect doping accusations, but confesses he did use cancer itself. Indeed, it became a favorite refrain of this that, having survived cancer, he’d never risk his life by taking drugs. (Risking your life is the essence of pro cycling. Watch the riders descend an Alpine pass, and you’ll immediately understand how specious this claim is.)

For his part, Landis says he hopes Armstrong “finds some peace.”

Armstrong has clearly gained perspective on the harsh way he treated people over the years—he refers to himself as “an idiot in full attack mode”—but it would be a considerable overstatement to say that he’s contrite. He regrets his treatment of O’Reilly, whom he smeared as a “whore” after she told the truth about doping to journalist David Walsh; he cites this as the most egregious and regrettable example of his own bullying. He also expresses something close to shame over his infamous on-camera threatening of fellow rider Filippo Simeone during the 2004 Tour de France.

As for Greg LeMond, whose line of bicycles Armstrong essentially quashed after the cycling legend publicly questioned his performances, Armstrong still mostly just seems annoyed to have been betrayed by a childhood idol. It’s unfortunate the film doesn’t drill more deeply into the ways in which the sport’s governing body may have been complicit Armstrong’s vendettas. For example, he may or may not have sicced the UCI on Tyler Hamilton after his former lieutentant beat him in a mountain time trial at the Dauphiné Libéré, but we only hear that from Hamilton himself.

Regardless, when it comes to the battles he fought off the bike, Lance Armstrong does not indulge feelings of guilt or self pity. “Could be worse,” he says of having to sell is estate in Austin. “I could be Floyd Landis, waking of a piece of shit everyday.”

Landis is, of course, the rider who finally shattered the vessel in 2010 with an email to then-CEO of USA Cycling, Steven Johnson, documenting drug use on the U.S. Postal team in lurid detail.

After his short-lived 2006 Tour de France victory ends in disgrace, Landis undergoes hip surgery and disappears into a haze of alcohol and painkillers. And when he finally emerges and attempts to return to the sport, he’s a pariah.

Johan Bruyneel, then heading the Radio Shack team, won’t touch Landis, as it would jeopardise their shot at a Tour de France wild card. But Bruyneel also recognizes that Landis is now a “time bomb,” which is borne out when he blows up not only Armstrong’s comeback but the most decadent generation in American pro cycling history.

For his part, Landis says he hopes Armstrong “finds some peace.”

And what was up with that comeback, anyway? Not only had Lance Armstrong retired at the pinnacle of fame and success, but he’d also gotten away with the doping. As former VeloNews editor Charles Pelkey remarks, “If he would have just shut the f— up he would have been okay.” But no.

As Armstrong explains, he got bored and casually started working out. Then he watched the 2008 Tour de France and thought, “Oh my god, Carlos Sastre?” And so he returned to the scene of the crime, which turned out to be a rendez-vous with both fate and Floyd Landis.

Lance Armstrong, Jan UllrichWhat’s most revealing about Lance Armstrong as a person are the things that get him to break character. When confessing to Oprah, he cries over the fact that his son had been defending his honor on the schoolyard all those years. He also cries when talking about the downfall of Jan Ulrich, his chief (and arguably only) rival, who turned to substance abuse after his own career ended in disgrace. Lance Armstrong calls Ulrich “the most important person in my life,” and the only person who “got him up in the morning.”

Then there’s his resentment of the sport of cycling, which is the only subject in the entire documentary over which Armstrong expresses actual rage: Ivan Basso is a hero, he notes ruefully, yet Marco Pantani is dead. Erik Zabel is a legend, yet Jan Ulrich is washed up. George Hincapie is … well, still George Hincapie, yet Nike stripped Armstrong’s name from that building. He may have cheated, but clearly he’s the one who feels cheated. Armstrong played by the unwritten rules of the sport, but then the sport re-wrote those rules, and nobody consulted him.

Nevertheless, Lance Armstrong has no regrets. He seems to understand that he had become a monster, and acknowledges that “I needed a nuclear meltdown, and I f—— got it.” And while he could have cooperated with USADA and retained some of his currency in the sport, he insists that he “wouldn’t change a thing,” because “I work for myself now.”

He chose the all-or-nothing option, and while he lost, he did so on his own terms. It’s not surprising he never renounces his own doping, because in the final analysis he’s probably would up in the same place he would have if he’d ridden clean and made some reasonably smart business decisions, but had he chosen a different path he’d never have seen the earth from space along the way.

Yes, Lance Armstrong can sleep at night. And the rest of us can finally put all this to bed.

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